Vacant, but not empty – graduate student explores the use of abandoned properties

By Meghan Chua


Vacant properties are often seen as remnants of the housing crisis or vestiges of industries that are no longer as present as they once were in U.S. cities. But graduate student Elsa Noterman sees more in these vacant properties, including current uses and important histories.

A PhD student in the UW–Madison Geography Department, Noterman was recently awarded a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the Mellon Foundation and American Council of Learned Society (ACLS) for 2018-19 for her dissertation exploring the conflict that arises over use and ownership of spaces in the urban commons.

Urban garden in Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood
Residents of Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood, started this urban garden on an abandoned property in the 1980s, but recently lost use of the land in a case against a developer. The developer purchased the land before the urban farmers were able to obtain the title through the Philadelphia Land Bank, an agency that facilitates the sale of vacant lots in the city. (Photo courtesy of Elsa Noterman)

Properties are deemed vacant for a number of reasons, Noterman says. Perhaps the occupants couldn’t afford the property taxes, or the lot is being held by a speculative real estate investor who doesn’t take care of it. In Kensington, the Philadelphia neighborhood where Noterman’s dissertation research is based, a number of post-industrial buildings and factories, as well as houses and lots, are now abandoned. But these lots haven’t been idle.

“A lot of these spaces have been used, and are being used, by community groups for various purposes: for community farms or community gardens, individual side yards, housing people who need housing, as well as other informal economy uses,” Noterman said. “That gets erased in discussions of vacancy.”

When lots are labeled vacant, their histories can also be erased, Noterman said. Kensington – where Noterman used to live – was formerly home to a number of lead refineries. Those refineries left lead in the soil even after the buildings have been demolished. Deeming these lots vacant can allow developers to ignore potential hazards and the relationships that people in the neighborhood have to the space, Noterman said.

“In considering that these properties are not empty spaces – and that they had previous histories, they have current lives, and they have future lives – that could perhaps change the way that certain land use policies in cities are being enacted,” Noterman said. “Developers, for example, might then have to consider if there’s an existing use of the space, or actually do soil testing because [the land] used to be the site of a former lead refinery before they start digging and turning up lead dust.”

Philadelphia also makes for an interesting place to study land use due to the recent formation of the Philadelphia Land Bank, a central agency that holds and facilitates the sale of vacant or tax-delinquent lots in the city.

As part of her dissertation, Noterman explores how the land bank has functioned, and whether it’s lived up to the expectations that it would increase accessibility and transparency in the process of acquiring city-owned and tax-delinquent properties. As land banks become more common in cities, it’s important to investigate whether they respond to the needs they’re meant to address in those communities, Noterman said.

A vacant building in Philadelphia
A vacant building in Philadelphia, where graduate student Elsa Noterman conducted her dissertation research exploring the conflict over use and ownership of urban spaces. (Photo courtesy of Elsa Noterman)

Noterman said that in theory, the Philadelphia Land Bank is supposed to allow different voices to be heard and their needs to be considered in the land titling process, but from many perspectives that hasn’t happened. One group she worked with, an urban farm that had been on the same piece of abandoned property since the 1980s, recently lost use of the land in a case against a developer who bought the land right at a time when the farmers were looking into obtaining the title through the land bank.

“It hasn’t been as easy a process as people had hoped,” Noterman said.

Looking at the different uses of so-called vacant spaces, and what value they hold to the community, has implications for cities and developers’ understandings of property, urban development, and the use of land.

“It’s raising up different viewpoints of best and highest use, beyond market value, and that there are different kinds of urban development that communities are interested in that are possible,” Noterman said.